Saturday, June 30, 2012

FMQ the Cheapo Way

FMQ =  Free Motion Quilting

There's a lot of chatter out there about free motion quilting and how to do it.

Here's the stone truth:  anybody who tells you that there is only one correct way to do it has proven to you that they cannot be trusted.  Machines differ.  Operators differ.  There are many variables: needles, thread, method of securing the layers, type of fabric, type of batting.

So why in the world would I voluntarily jump into this particular snake pit?  Because I hope I have something useful to say.  Key word: CHEAP.

But really this is my response to something I read online by an FMQ guru.  I'm not going to say who, her work is terrific, and if I live a million years I will never be that good.  But you DON'T, you really, really DON'T need a machine costing thousands of dollars.  Not even hundreds of dollars.  If I had a machine costing thousands, and she had my cheapo machine, she would still be terrific at FMQ and I would still be terrible at it.

First, the backstory
I stumbled into this because I am have a Pennywinkle quilting frame (more about this later) on which a regular sewing machine can be pushed around to do free motion quilting.  I'm moving along the steep upward slope of the learning curve with this system, and I have been auditioning machines on it. 

It's like a longarm setup, but with an ordinary size machine

Before hoisting the 40+ pound machines onto the frame, I try them out with a small sample of free motion quilting in a hoop.  This (and one ten-year old UFO) is the sum total of my experience with FMQ.  So this post is NOT about how to become a whiz at FMQ, it's about how to choose the right machine for the job and how to set it up.  The technical stuff rather than the talent stuff or the artistic stuff or the skill-acquired-by-hundreds-of-hours-of-repetition stuff.

Step One:  Buy a cheap Japanese Singer 15 clone
Gazillions of copies of the Singer 15 were churned out of Japanese factories in the 1950's and 60's.  Around here a reasonable price for a black one in perfect operating condition is $10.  These are straight-stitch only machines with class 15 vertical bobbins.

how to identify a Singer 15 clone in the wild

Why a clone rather than a Singer?  No reason, I just like them.  I've got a Singer 15-91 that I have not bonded with, but it probably just needs more TLC.  The clones on the other hand have all responded beautifully to a little cleaning and sewing machine oil.  They all turn sweetly and smoothly.  All seven of them. I have sworn off buying them more than once, then another $10 one places itself in my path.  And I will confess to having paid more for the pink and green ones, but not much more.

They also come in pretty colors.

Anyhow, they are so cheap and plentiful that you should look for one that turns reasonably smoothly and has good wiring.  No reason to waste your time and money rescuing a pitiful one.

Can you still call it a clone if it has had a fashion makeover?
Jazzy stitch length device, but it still works just like a 15

Step Two:  Clean and oil it.
There is a lot of advice about this in other places.

Step Three:  Test stitch.
Do a bit more than just stitch a few inches.  Run up a few quilt blocks with it.  Or make a tote bag.  Give it enough of a workout at under normal sewing conditions so that any problems will have a chance to surface.

Step Four:  Prepare the quilt sandwich
Layer your backing, batting, and top and then secure them.  I use a hoop and for something small (like a pillow top) I would only use a hoop.  For something larger I baste to hold things in position generally, but STILL hoop the portion being quilted.  The hoop keeps the layers from shifting and prevents tucks on the back side.  The hoop gives you something to grip to move the quilt around under the needle.  You can use a hoop twice as wide as the space between the needle of your machine and the machine pillar.

You want to hoop it so that the quilt sandwich is flat against the bed of the machine, not raised.  You will probably have to remove the presser foot to get the hoop into sewing position, but put it right back on again.

There are other techniques and they may work well for you.  This is what I prefer, but this is not the secret heart of the DragonPoodle method--that's coming up next.  So use whatever works for you to secure the layers together.

Step Five:  Reduce the presser foot pressure.
As you unscrew the pressure regulator, the pressure on the presser foot is reduced.  You want to reduce it to nothingness.  You want the presser foot to float right on top of the quilt sandwich.  Unscrew it to its maximum.  On two of my machines this worked.  On a third machine there was still a bit of drag on the sandwich, so I had to remove it completely.  Don't worry because a) you only spent $10, right? and b) it will screw right back in, so you have not ruined anything.

Put the presser foot lever in the down position--that's vital because it engages the thread tension.  Move your hoop or quilt sandwich around.  If it moves freely with no drag from the presser foot then you are ready to quilt.  The presser foot IS still working for you--it is holding the sandwich stable right at the point where the needle goes through it to meet and mingle with the bobbin thread.

And by the way, this is why you want a vintage straight-stitcher for FMQ rather than a zig-zagger. A zig-zag machine has a MUCH larger opening for the needle.  The fabric can be pushed or pulled into this opening, and there will be more play in the thread.  A straight stitcher reduces the potential problems. A single tiny hole just bigger than the tiny needle gives your machine the best chance to perform well under the unusual circumstances of FMQing where you are pushing the quilt sandwich through the machine in any direction you please and changing that direction regularly.  Of course some zig-zaggers come with a separate straight stitch throat plate, so if you want to try this technique with a vintage zig-zagger this would be the time to use it.

By the way, notice what you are not doing right now?  You are not spending more money on a special quilting/darning/hopping/embroidery foot.  I burned my way through more than one of these before I discovered the DragonPoodle method.  All you need is the original straight stitch foot that came with your cheapo machine.

feed dog drop

Step Six:  To Drop, Or Not To Drop:  That Is The Question
Here's the big joke:  it makes no difference.   Drop the feed dogs, don't drop the feed dogs.  In my trials it made no difference.  If you choose to leave them up, or if they are stuck in the up position on your machine, then just set the stitch length to zero.   I drop them because if I bump the stitch length lever (or completely forget about it) it won't matter.

Step Seven:  Have at it
You should always test FMQ on a sample first.  Adjust the tension as necessary.

They say it takes 200 hours of practice to rise to FMQ adequacy.  But you know what?  Normal people will not care if you are not a whiz.  They will say, in tones of awe "you made that?" or "you made that for ME?"  if you use cute fabrics and the batting is not hanging out of the seams.  So FMQ badly--and proudly.

Two more tips for how to FMQ badly
  • don't use solid colors--busy prints will help hide your stitches
  • use cotton batting for that wrinkly vintage look that will also camouflage the stitching

OK, so there was not much in the above that was truly original except for my guaranteed, patented, certified technique for removing the presser foot regulator and floating that straight stitch foot.  And that's probably not original either, there's a good chance I read it somewhere.  But hey, it's super cheap and for me it is working like a charm.  Why not give it a try?  Why not, in fact, have a dedicated FMQ machine ready to go at a moments notice?

If you do, please leave a note below and tell me how it went.  And feel free to send me the $4,990 dollars that you saved.  I take PayPal.

ps:  there are some great posts in the comments below, be sure to check them out!


  1. You are absolutely my favourite sewing machine blog writer! Every time I visit you, I learn so many new things. I just wanted to thank you for your generous spirit in sharing this information with the rest of us. :) Kindest regards, Dianne B. in England (an Onion friend)

    1. thanks so much! I have fun writing this, and comments like this one keep me going!

  2. I agree with the above comment. I do not have a Singer 201, but was told that it has a larger throat area. That may make it easier to do some quilting, but obviously more expensive too. Great post!

    1. I've got a 201 with fried wiring that I have not tackled yet. But the 201 has a horizontal bobbin (class 66) and all the FMQ gurus say that the vertical (class 15) bobbin is better for FMQ because the bobbin thread goes straight up, rather than having to make a 90 degree turn.

      thanks for writing!

  3. What a great post and information! I use my 15-91 for all of my FMQing and have been doing it for over 20 years. I will have to keep a look out for some of the knock off machines and by the way...........I'll come get your 15-91 :) I have never heard of that quilting frame and I'll be watching for more info, was it expensive?

    1. I got the frame at a charity shop for $225, one of my all-time best purchases. There are lots of frame systems out there. I would keep an eye on your local Craigslist if you want one---and have the room for one.

      not giving up the 15-91 just yet! Someday I will learn basic motor maintenance, which is all it needs, I think.

      thanks for writing!

  4. lol too true! I actually have had the best success with my pink Wizard machine on a HandiQuilter frame (both CL purchases). I also replaced the original foot pedal, which was burning my hand off, with a ceiling fan regulator that has a dial for the speed and an on/off switch. Works goooood! : )

  5. Pink is GOOD--is your Wizard a 15 clone?

    I put the foot pedal into a hardware store apron (the little skinny kind) and tie it tight up under my armpit. Pressure from my arm controls the speed. Funky, but after 30 seconds quite natural. I bought a new controller to solve the heat problem, but the bigger problem is my knees, which don't let me stand for too long. So I quilt in short bursts and the heat does not build up. Haven't installed the new controller yet.

    I must admit that it never occurred to me to replace the whole controller with something else. Much food for thought, thanks!

    1. What a great idea about the armpit control. Now it is an axillary controller. HOW FUN.

  6. Cheryl, I'm also a bad-and proud-FM quilter! We should have a club! I agree about straight stitchers, they are wonderful to FM with. But I don't have a frame(yet!), just a big desk style cabinet, and I've found that using a front loading machine in the desk I don't get the eyelashing I sometimes do with an end loader. Did I mention the "bad" part of my FM work? LOL. My current favorite FM machine is a vintage Brother Riviera. I do use a SS plate and a knee controller that gives me excellent speed control.


    1. I'll join that club! Can you come up with a name for us proud-to-be-bad FMQers?

      I've never heard anyone discuss the difference between front loaders and side loaders. You're talking about class 15 bobbins in both cases, right? That's definitely worth investigating. I was running a Pfaff 1221 on the frame for a while, which loads from the front. But I just sold that one.

      so now I will be on the hunt for a straight-stitching, front-loading class 15 bobbin machine!

      thanks for writing!

  7. I think you just did give us a name. The Proud To Be Bad FMQers!
    Actually, the more I think about it, I think we may be comparing apples to oranges. With a frame, you are moving the machine while I'm using a stationary machine and moving the fabric. The Riviera is a zz machine from 1958, I use a ss needle plate for the very reasons you talked about. Here's pic from when I first got it, don't have a pic all cleaned up.

  8. I hope I'm not doubling this comment. I've lost many of my blog-related skills. I just wanted to add that I also enjoy your blog, I hope you can keep at it - I know it can be a struggle. And I do want to say, as far as your FQ points, I am mostly in agreement except for one perhaps personal preference. I do find it very helpful to use a good darning foot. Although I have only dabbled at quilting, I do a fair amount of darning (mostly as an excuse for having a "herd" of machines). And without the darning foot, I am too rough and clumsy and likely to push or pull the fabric too much, and end up bending the needle enough to strike the needle plate, at best just breaking the needle, at worst giving the mechanics a rude shock. The darning foot, with it's hopping motion, putting the foot down to hold the fabric while the needle pierces the fabric and then releasing the foot during the upward swing of the needle, all makes for a more carefree experience... for me. Of course, I am also a fan of roadside / dumpster machines which give us lots of opportunities to experiment without breaking the bank. May your needles be forever straight. :) Ben

  9. Ben,
    Thanks for chiming in about the darning foot. As Cari pointed out above, we are really comparing apples to oranges--I do almost all of my FMQ on a frame, where the fabric is stable and the machine is moving. Your points about the darning foot are good ones--but this would TRIPLE the price of the system, lol!

    another good feature of a darning or embroidery foot is the visibility, and again this is quite a different experience on the frame versus sitting at a machine.

    thanks for contributing! hope to see you here again

  10. Great post. I find it amazing that some people prefer to buy sewing machines that cost as much as cars.
    I don't have a quilting frame and currently am treadling a Necchi BU/Nova and a 1926 Singer 15.
    I do use one of several darning feet--I think the most expensive was $12. I've ordered a couple from Cindy at Stitches In Time for about $10--as well as Class 15 Bobbins (a dozen for less than $5) so I can preload a bunch for each quilt.
    Also, most often on my Necchi I do use the zigzag plate and have no issues.
    My concern with finding and using a frame was how much space the rolled quilt would take up under the head as I neared the end (leaving me with very little room to maneuver the quilt, but I'm going to have to keep an eye out for one. (Of course, then I'll need to add a Japanese Class 15 with a motor to my flock--but I've been wanting a machine of color anyway.)
    Thanks for posting this.
    Not sure how I missed this post initially since I'm subscribed to your block, so I'm glad you let other Onions know about it.

    1. Thanks, Dora. I have plans for a future blog post about the frame. It is a very different experience in that you can only quilt a narrow path across the quilt, unless you are willing to move those rollers around quite a lot. but I am more than willing to put up with all this for NO BASTING. More later.

      btw, I've read your post 3 times and still have not spotted any mis-spellings!

      thanks for writing

  11. OK, a few idiot spellings in that last comment--but the words kind of sound the same! Sorry about that!

  12. Great post Cheryl! I will keep it always as reference for mysel and in the case someone ask me about FMQ!

    Andrea Maria

  13. I have a 1938 Singer 201-2 handed down to me from my grandmother. This is the first time I've made a quilt, and the first time I've quilted with this machine. It was so easy after figuring out how to set it up. I am almost finished and very pleased with the results. Get your cord replaced and get that machine going!

  14. Cheryl, thank you for your informative blog on these beautiful vintage machines. I own 5 and I love them all and they all sew perfect. I don't have a mid or long arm and like Dora, I love FMQing on my treadle. Sometimes I just need to slow down and unwind and "Annie" my 1904 singer class 15 treadle is there waiting for me.

  15. I too love fmq on my 15-91. Can't do it on a modern machine cuz there is no gradual speed, it just takes off and then I've already ruined my design. Have a question for you. I have removed, cleaned and repaced my handwheel and tested that the handwheel screw not move when I turn it for winding a bobbin. All is fine until I actually engage the bobbin winding tire, then the needlebar starts going up and down. any suggenstions?


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